Waseca County Pioneer 111 W. Elm Ave.

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Real definition of ‘Aurora borealis’

It’s one thing to understand something academically, and quite another to watch it happen in front of you. 
Thanks to an astronomy class taken during my (long-ago) college days, I knew “aurora borealis” means “lights of the north,” and that they result when above-typical solar activity ejects energy into space. The earth’s magnetic field converges at the two poles, so when the radiation reaches earth, it follows those converging lines.
But as anyone who saw the northern lights on Friday night will tell you, that academic explanation is completely insufficient to convey the wonder the phenomenon inspired. People will be sharing their northern lights stories for decades to come.
In my case, I could watch it all from my front yard–yet another advantage to living on a remote country road. (A second advantage was that, even though I was out there in my garish yellow–but beautifully warm–bathrobe, no one was around to take pictures and post them on social media.)
My husband and I stood in our driveway pointing out different parts of the sky to each other like excited children at the zoo. (Please note the cleverness, there. Many constellations are named after animals–bears, swans, there’s even a giraffe. So it was a zoo, in a way.) Even with a clear view of the dome above us, we could not look in enough directions at once: every part of the sky was alive with energy.
Shapes would appear suddenly, merge into one another, and then be gone. With the unaided eye, we could see movement, change, and now and then a bit of luminescent color, like partial rainbows among clouds. I risked losing my balance as I rotated on the somewhat even driveway while looking upward. Between us, John and I contacted everyone we could think of who might see our messages. In some cases, we even tried waking up specific people we were certain would be asleep.
I think you’ll see my point when I say an “academic understanding” does not make excited children of us. It does not inspire our sense of wonder or our desire to wake other people from a comfortable sleep to cajole them out into the night.
In one of my texts, I told Eli “Tonight you can understand why the ancients believed in magic.” Without modern science, what other explanation could they have found for a roiling, reforming panorama like that one? Especially in a sky that was otherwise so predictable it could be used as a calendar…
On Saturday evening, we invited some family members who were visiting from out of state to join us on our driveway. Coming from a large suburban area, they were astounded how many stars were visible from our remote country location.
The northern lights we saw on Saturday were good–would probably have been noteworthy if there had not been the explosion of wonder that was Friday night. On Saturday, the energy behaved differently. At one point, we were trying to decide whether the apparently lighter-colored patches to the north were clouds or aurora.
When I looked down from the sky, I realized I could see the lawn surprisingly well. That’s when it became clear that, rather than reflecting ground-level light like clouds do after dark, our mystery patches were actually lighting us from above. That, too, was wondrous, even without the dynamic dance patterns of the night before.
For those of you who missed this weekend’s displays, science has some exciting news. According to online sources, the sun is approaching a “peak” of an eleven-year cycle of rising and falling surface activity. As it works toward that peak, expected in 2025, Sol peppers itself with sunspots and, somewhere along the way, reverses its magnetic orientation. During that peak is when we usually get the most dynamic displays of aurora borealis.
So keep listening to the news for information about solar activity. And however inviting a warm bed and some cozy sleep might seem, consider cajoling yourself outside to have a look.


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